The Coast News Group
Courtesy photo

Temporary field lights to stay one more year at Leo Mullen

ENCINITAS — The temporary field lights that have illuminated soccer practices at Leo Mullen Sports Park for nearly three years will stay up at least one more year, as city officials continue to explore the possibility of permanent field lights.

On May 8, the City Council approved a one-year extension of the agreement between the city and the Encinitas Express soccer club for the field lights.

The city granted the soccer club the rights to use the lights in November 2016, after two years of debate over whether the city could legally allow the club to use them to light nighttime practices at the park in Encinitas Ranch.

That agreement was meant to give the city 18 months to study whether permanent lights were feasible and to amend the plan that governs Encinitas Ranch, which currently prohibits lighting at the park.

But parks and recreation officials said that the city is still working on the study — specifically a light study that was commissioned in June 2017 — before it can determine how to proceed with amending the document, called the Encinitas Ranch Specific Plan.

“The City commissioned a light study to assess the feasibility of installing permanent lights at Leo Mullen Sports Park,” City Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Campbell wrote in an email. “We are still waiting for additional information from the consultant and after receiving the information we can then determine how we would proceed with amending the Encinitas Ranch Specific Plan to allow lights at the park.”

After approving two earlier six-month extensions, the council’s vote on Wednesday granted the soccer club use of the field lights until May 8, 2020.

If the city at any point does not approve the amendment, the club would be required to remove the lighting.

Encinitas Express lobbied the city for nearly two years to install artificial turf and permanent lighting at the soccer field located adjacent to the Encinitas Ranch Town Center, which serves as the organization’s primary practice field.

Currently, the rules governing the Encinitas Ranch neighborhood prohibit lights at the park, which the soccer club, of about 1,700 participants, says reduces practice time.

After nearly a year of delays, the city proceeded with installing the artificial turf and completed it in September 2016.

But soccer club officials at the time said that without the lights, the lack of practice time could force the club to shut down.

The lighting has proven to be more complex, as neighbors and residents previously questioned if installing lights would trigger an election under Proposition A — the city’s 2013 voter initiative that requires a public vote for major changes to zoning and intensification of land use — and whether the impacts of the lighting needed additional environmental scrutiny.

City Attorney Glenn Sabine issued an opinion in March 2016 that a public vote wouldn’t be required as long as the field lights were below 30 feet.

The City Council in October 2016 unanimously voted to move forward with the process of amending the specific plan that governs Encinitas Ranch to allow for permanent field lights, but Cambria residents — many of whom were among the subdivision’s original owners — protested the move, arguing that they bought their homes with the understanding the field would never have lights.

This led to the November 2016 vote in which the council agreed to plant a tree buffer to shield those neighbors from the temporary lights.